The Inmates are Running the Asylum
Excerpt from the new 2nd Edition Foreword
by Alan Cooper
In my recent travels I have noticed a growing malaise in the community of programmers. Sadly, it is the best and most experienced of them who are afflicted the worst. They reflect cynicism and ennui about their efforts because they know that their skills are being wasted. They may not know exactly how they are misapplied, but they cannot overlook the evidence. Many of the best programmers have actually stopped programming because they find the work frustrating. They have retreated into training, evangelism, writing, and consulting because it doesn't feel so wasteful and counterproductive. This is a tragic and entirely avoidable loss. (The open-source movement is arguably a haven for these frustrated programmers—a place where they can write code according to their own standards and be judged solely by their peers, without the advice or intervention of marketers or managers).
Programmers are not given sufficient time, clear enough direction, or adequate designs to enable them to succeed. These three things are the responsibility of business executives, and they fail to deliver them for preventable reasons, not because they are stupid or evil. They are simply not armed with adequate tools for solving the complex and unique problems that confront them in the information age. Now here I am sounding like I'm slamming people again, only this time businesspeople are in my sights instead of programmers. Once again, to solve the problem one must deconstruct it. I'm questing after solutions, not scapegoats.
Don Hopkins has ported pie-menus to Sugar and there has been some discussion about the usability and suitability of pie-menus in general but I haven't seen anyome who is putting serious thought and effort into the user experience aspects of olpc and sugar.
Matthew Olpihant has asked the question:
Christoph Derndorfer also asked:
When was the last time anyone actually mentioned the children and teachers that are going to be using the Children's Machine XO? How many children and teachers have actually used the Sugar UI?
We all know that geeks (yes, I'm also guilty of belonging to that group of people) find the user interface very interesting. But has anyone done any large scale usability testing of the hardware and/or software with children in developing countries? Or any children at all?
Chrstoph also had this to say last week:
There have been many questions raised on the topic of training for potential OLPC X0 users, this might be the first glimpse at how OLPC plans to do that.
"One of the words Christopher used to describe working on the project was creepy... I asked if he meant because it was such a large idea that can have an impact? He said not exactly. Maybe it has to do with an earlier comment he made about being a bunch of geeky tech guys who have no notion of the environment these machines will go into on a personal level."
Via his blog Christopher Blizzard later clarified that he
"said 'creepy' because it felt strange being in the middle of such an amazing group of people and trying to do something as amazing as this. You spend a lot of time beside yourself when you’re working on this project. It’s like watching some insane version of yourself from the outside."
It's nevertheless interesting that the guy taking these notes interpreted that phrase the way he did. This 'having little idea about the environment these machines will do into' is another aspect that many people have criticized or at least questioned about the OLPC project.
Can a bunch of well-educated Western computer and technology geeks working in fancy offices really come up with a solution for the developing world? Well, I guess that depends on whether you believe that OLPC is a laptop project or an education project.
I am surprised that organisations like the UPA haven't been more pro-active in getting involved with the OLPC and Sugar. It seems that an awful lot of usability decisions are being left to the engineers. It would be very sad if the OLPC is seen as a usability and accessibility failure just because the "user experience community" didn't get involved when they had a chance. Please remember that it is the programmers who actually create the software that defines the user experience and they need the help and support of information architects, usability experts and other design experts if they are going to produce something that makes sense to anyone other than the programmers who built it.
Are there any accessibility or usability "experts" out there who would like to put some spare time into helping to make Sugar more accessible and usable?
However it does appear that OLPC don't want to make it easy to get involved. You can just give them some money or you could actually use Sugar and report any usability "bugs" you find:
You should use the software that we will use and you report bugs. In addition to simple functionality and usability bugs, you can also look for performance and optimization related bugs. Due to our memory and disk constraints, we need to be much pickier about certain types of inefficiency in software than many other users of free and open source software.
Please add OLPC bugs filed in other bug-tracking system to this wikipage.
In the mean time why not make a contribution by thinking about how you could help Peter Korn improve sugar accessibility?
Peter Korn (Accessibility Architect from Sun) just posted this message on the Sugar mailing list:
Thanks to Jim Gettys I've started looking at OLPC & Sugar accessibility
in what passes for spare time. We've just started a mailing list to
discuss it (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I've updated the
Accessibility wiki page (http://wiki.laptop.org/go
also added a bit to start things off on the accessibility section of the
OLPC human interface guidelines
_Human_Interface_Guidelines /Design_Fundamentals#Accessibi lity)
I would very much appreciate a conversation looking at these issues, and
on how (and when) we might address accessibility in Sugar and on the
OLPC. From my brief play with the OLPC via a stock BTest-2 system,
there is quite a lot of work to do to provide anything like a similar
level of accessibility support as we have in a GNOME 2.16 or later
desktop (including keyboard navigation support, theming for visual
disabilities, and of course assistive technologies). There is also a
lot of great potential for this device to open up some neat new options
for people with disabilities (sign language chat with the built in
camera; augmentative communication for folks who can't speak by having
the OLPC talk for them), and also for a rather radical cultural shift in
the many developing countries where people with disabilities are often
shunted into a horrible, marginal existence (I recommend the book "My
Path Leads to Tibet" about the story of a German blind woman's efforts
to teach Braille to children in Tibet - see
As I'm new to the OLPC & Sugar, I'd also appreciate your patience and
understanding (and your kind assistance) with my ignorance of what has
already been discussed in this area."
I have included some extracts from the OLPC guidelines that relate to accessibility.
From the OLPC Human Interface Guidelines
There are lots of things to think about relating to accessibility in a set of human interface guidelines. We've just started hashing out general accessibility issues at the Accessibility page.
Broadly speaking, the user interface of the GUI shell and of activities must address the following accessibility issues:
- Using the interface only from the keyboard (without a mouse or trackpad)
- Using the interface without requiring the ability to distinguish color (a significant portion of the population has some level of color blindness)
- Providing an enlarged print/icon option for folks whose vision is less than 20/20 (but who still can see things that are somewhat enlarged - e.g. 18 point fonts)
- Using the keyboard without needing to press more than one key at a time (all modifiers must work with AccessX functionality)
- Supporting programmatic access to the GUI (which for us will mean supporting ATK in Sugar and all activites)
- Either shipping with some number of assistive technology applications (is a screen reader an "activity"?), or making them easy to download
- Providing some way for a user to discover accessibility support and enable what they need (Windows XP & Vista offer an "accessibility wizard" for this purpose; we don't have good upstream technology from GNOME we can take for this unfortunately; the Ubuntu accessibility folks are perhaps furtherest along in thinking about this)
Tasks toward making the OLPC accessible
- We need to define what "accessibility" means in the OLPC context (this is primarily for Sugar, and would likely feed into some place like the Sugar accessibility design guidelines
- We need to make the GNOME accessibility framework work on OLPC/Sugar, in order to support assistive technologies (right now we have ATK, but AT-SPI depends upon CORBA and Bonobo which are presently too big to fit comfortable in the OLPC hardware envelope). This might mean putting the existing AT-SPI infrastructure on a major diet, or it might mean moving to something like DBUS (which is attractive for other reasons)
- We need to define & implement a handful of accessible themes for Sugar
- We need to ensure that Sugar & all OLPC Activities (the concept of "application") implement ATK and work with AT
- We need to ensure that Sugar & all OLPC Activities support these accessible themes (large print, high contrast, etc.)
- We need to bring software AT to the platform
- Open source usability is a technical problem we can solve on our own by Frans Englich
- Open Source Usability: The birth of a movement by Rashmi Sinha
- Why the OLPC needs lots of usability work by Harry Brignull
- The Sugar UI by Jeff Atwood
- $100 Laptop’s/OLPC’s user interface looks good, but... by Teemu Leinonen